Screw Velveeta, Eat Juustoleipa

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

As Kraft continues to perpetuate its “Velveeta Shortage = World is Ending” public relations campaign to drive sales for the Super Bowl — seriously, show me a store where the shelves are bare of processed cheese — I say it’s time to start a new trend here in Subarctica and eat warm cheese that does not consist of milk and whey protein concentrate. 

Yes, I made up the term Subarctica to represent where I live in Wisconsin, even though we appear to be on the tail end of an arctic polar vortex blitz featuring temps of minus 20 degrees F for the past week. So it seems to be a good time to talk about something warm. And what’s better than warm cheese?

People, I give you the best warm cheese outside fresh curds from a vat. Called Juustoleipa (pronounced oo-stah-lee-pah, with the first syllable rhyming with the word who), this cheese originates from Scandinavia, where the fine folks in northern Finland have been making it from reindeer, cow and goat milk for 200 years. 

In Wisconsin, you’ll sometimes see it labeled as Bread Cheese, because a) that’s how Juustoleipa translates in English, and b) the cheese is actually baked (like bread) during the cheesemaking process. Made without a starter culture – a process similar to making feta – Juustoleipa is merely fresh curds pressed into blocks. It it then briefly baked. The result is a squeaky cheese with a mild, buttery flavor. The best part is the splotchy brown crust, formed when heat from baking caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the cheese. The cheese is made to be grilled in a skillet or warmed in an oven (it doesn’t melt when heated) and eaten for breakfast with coffee and maple syrup or honey, or after a meal with jam or jelly.

Juustoleipa first came on the scene in Wisconsin back in 2002, when scientists at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), via funding from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, worked to recreate the original Finnish recipe in an effort to preserve a traditional, ethnic cheese and develop a safe manufacturing method to share with small Wisconsin cheese factories and farmstead operations. Cheese Scientist Jim Path, now retired from CDR, traveled to northern Michigan, where he found an elderly couple producing it in tiny quantities, and then to a farmstead in Finland just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle where he studied the manufacturing technique.

In September of 2002, CDR hosted a seminar attended by 28 Wisconsin cheesemakers and 10 Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers that included a hands-on demonstration of making Juustoleipa. The idea was that the cheese would be ideal for a small factory or start-up.

Today, you’ll find six different Wisconsin cheese companies crafting it under a variety of names.

  • Carr Valley Cheese Bread Cheese (in Traditional, Garlic, Chipotle and Jalapeno flavors)
  • Babcock Hall Juustoleipa and Jalapeno Juustoleipa
  • Pasture Pride Cheese Juusto (in Traditional, Italiano, Jalapeno, Chipotle flavors, as well as with Nueske’s Bacon), Guusto (goat’s milk version) and Oven Baked Cheeses filled with 5yr cheddar, Parmesan, and aged goat cheese
  • Bass Lake Cheese Juustoleipa (Cheesemaker/Owner Scott Erickson is the only certified master cheesemaker in Juustoleipa)
  • Brunkow Cheese Brun-uusto Cheese
  • Noble View Creamery Juustoleipa (in Traditional, Jalapeno and Habanero flavors, and with bacon)

So while here in Wisconsin we enjoy all the taste of Juustoleipa, we haven’t yet adopted its cultural practices. Legend has it that in Finland, mothers of “eligible women” – I love that phrase – used to offer suitors a cup of coffee with the cheese and, if the man liked the cheese, he married the girl. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Who wouldn’t want to marry a man who didn’t like cheese?

As a side note, if you’re looking for a way to taste all of these Juustoleipas, I’ve created an “Juustopalooza” event in the specialty cheese department at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale in Madison on Saturday, Feb. 1 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We’ll be frying up 3 different Juusto cheeses for you to sample with many more available for sale. See you then!

Dueling Chefs & Cowboy Cheesemakers

Last weekend marked the 10th annual Madison Food & Wine Show, an annual shindig that brings about 6,000 people to town to sample local foods and spirits from 150 different vendors.

I am eternally lucky that show organizers ask me to be a guest judge at the show’s yearly Dueling Chef competition, pitting seven of Madison’s best chefs against each other in dual 30-minute cooking competitions over the course of three days. The competition has become quite fierce with impressive bragging rights, so chefs take it incredibly seriously, practicing extensively beforehand, and bringing in their best sous chef and special equipment to gain an edge over the competition.

My assigned dueling chefs were David Heide of Liliana’s and Nicholas Johnson of 43 North, two amazingly talented guys running great restaurants. The mystery ingredient – always unveiled with a flourish at the very beginning – was this time a “Breakfast Box,” containing boxes of Captain Crunch and Bisquick, a carton of eggs, a container of grits, bottles of maple syrup and buttermilk, as well as packages of English muffins and Black Earth Meats sausage. Oh, and a pineapple, apparently thrown in just for fun.

Both judges and chefs are used to a single mystery ingredient – think mushrooms, or swordfish, or pork belly – so a box of random mystery breakfast items threw everyone for a loop. The chefs, however rallied quickly while we judges started drinking wine to prepare for what we could only imagine would be breakfast dishes, and in just 30 minutes, each chef produced two innovative dishes highlighting both their talents and the mystery ingredients.

My favorite dish was a trio of breakfast appetizers (pictured at the top of this post), prepared by Nicholas Johnson of 43 North, which included a round of goat chevre, rolled in Captain Crunch and flash fried, served on half of a toasted English muffin drowned in maple syrup. That dish may have put him in the lead, as 43 North edged out Liliana’s by just two points out of 200 to win the round. Nicholas and his 43 North went on to the next round only to be beaten by the battle’s eventual winner, Jesse Matz of Bunky’s, (pictured at left with son Kaden and restaurant owner Teresa Pullara), who with sous chef Peter Lidstrom, pulled an upset and beat reigning champion chef Bee Khang of Sushi Muramoto in a final battle of exotic fruits.

After the Dueling chef competition, with my stomach full of non-traditional breakfast food and a half bottle of red wine (did I mention it was barely noon?), I went in search of new cheeses at the show. Lo and behold, I ran into sixth generation dairy farmer Jay Noble, a cowboy cheesemaker sampling his brand new Jalapeno Juustoleipa.

With a never-ending line of hungry show-goers waiting in line to taste his toasted cheese, I snagged a bite, snapped a quick photo and waved an enthusiastic hello. It was awesome to see Jay in action, as the last time I’d chatted with him – six months ago on a seven-hour bus ride between Ann Arbor and Madison — he was just starting his cheese business.

I call Jay a cowboy cheesemaker, because even though he wears a baseball cap (not a cowboy hat), he is the kind of man, who when he puts his mind to it, accomplishes the impossible, such as building a dairy farm from scratch, renovating a shed into a licensed dairy plant, and rigging a giant pizza oven into a state-approved cheese baking oven.

His venture is called Noble View Creamery, and his cheese of choice is Juustoleipa, a cheese native to Finland that translates into “bread cheese.” The Finnish like to eat it for breakfast with toast and jam. It’s a unique cheese, finished by baking a crust on it just before shipping, which helps it keep its shape and not melt when heated. It’s best served warm to bring out a buttery flavor and squeaky texture.

The story of how Noble View Creamery cheese came into being is a long and windy tale of which I learned on the afore-mentioned seven-hour bus ride. So try and keep up – and keep in mind this is the REALLY short version.

2000 — Jay buys into the family dairy farm.
2001 — Jay gets married to a woman whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting, but whom I can only imagine is a lovely and patient woman.
2003 — Jay starts his own dairy venture with said lovely and patient wife, raising dairy heifers.
2004 — Jay buys a 500-cow dairy in Fredonia, Wis., on a foreclosure sale. He starts milking cows.
2006 — A “guy from California” knocks on Jay’s door and wants to buy Jay’s farm. The next day, Jay’s dad calls and says: “I’m retiring. Do you want to buy me out?” Jay says yes to all of the above.
2007 — Jay builds a new dairy in the middle of a farm field that’s been in the family since 1842. Once again, he starts milking his own cows.

Which brings us to present time: with six employees and his own trucking company, Jay is now milking 400 cows, but because milk prices are so unstable, he decides to explore a “value-added” venture for his dairy farm. He settles on cheese – Juustoleipa in particular – and somehow talks super busy Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese into making it for him. Jay then trucks the cheese to his newly renovated and licensed dairy plant in Union Grove, bakes it in an oversized pizza oven, and then packages and ships it for sale. 

Boom. Mission accomplished.

In addition to Juustoleipa, Jay’s also making and selling a line of Hispanic cheeses under his Alqueria label. Queso Tostado is a ready to heat and eat Queso Blanco, while his Queso Quesadilla is a smooth, soft and mild cheese, suited for snacking and melting. All cheeses are available through Noble View Creamery, which I can only guess will soon be coming to a cheese store near you. And knowing Jay, that day will come sooner rather than later.